As the Third Session of Vatican II continued its march through late October 1964 the Council Fathers maintained their discussion on the schema that would become “The Church in the Modern World.” The discussion of Article 21 on October 29-30 is particularly noteworthy in the light of developments up to the present day, for the subject matter involved marriage and procreation. It might be good to step back for a moment, as Xavier Rynne does in his narrative, to provide the atmosphere of anxiety and expectancy around Article 21. For the press and interested Catholics, the focus of interest was contraception, and how the Council would address the subject in the context of defining marriage.
There are so many aspects of the question that one hardly knows where to begin. For one thing, the debate about birth control then was couched differently than it is today. In 1964 the bishops were faced with a problem arising from the ground up, the concerns of Catholic couples who were in good faith seeking pastoral advice about how to maintain conjugal unity while living within their means and adequately providing for their families. Catholics, it should be remembered, were already morally permitted to regulate the size of their families; several popes of the early twentieth century had approved of periodic abstinence during the fertility time of a woman’s cycle; popularly known as “the rhythm method” years ago, the official phraseology used by the Church today is Natural Family Planning, described here at the USCCB site.
The Church permitted periodic abstinence on the grounds that it was “natural.” The nature and integrity of the sex act was defined such that every act between husband and wife was neither interrupted (as in coitus interruptus) nor impeded by mechanical device such as a condom. (One of my early 60’s seminary professors put it artistically: “A husband and wife engaged in intercourse where the husband uses a condom are guilty of mutual masturbation.” I met him years later and quoted this back, much to his embarrassment.) The Church did not condemn the intention of limiting children, but rather unnatural means in the effort to do so. However, the new progesterone or birth control pills were now available in the United States and elsewhere, and the pill immediately fell under the prohibition cited above. Married Catholics of the best intentions strained to see this rather metaphysical distinction between natural and artificial, if the intent itself was permissible. I cannot precisely state a date—for obvious reasons—when many priests began advising married persons in confession or parlor to use their own consciences on the use of the pill, but this indeed was the case in parishes across the country.
Those who defended the present prohibition of artificial birth control replied that for the Church to change its teaching of centuries on the nature and morality of sexuality would mean that the Church had failed or erred; like falling dominoes, the reasoning went, the Church’s other teachings would topple, and the very nature of Christ’s Church would be compromised. This is not an argument without merit in some respect in terms of Church order, but as Rynne pointed out, the philosophy of marriage and sexuality was worthy of re-examination given that the prohibition of artificial birth control was hardly traceable to apostolic times and owed more to the positions of major Roman seminaries and universities. Cardinal Leger of Montreal put it best when he hoped that a renewal of marriage teaching “would enhance the holiness of marriage by a deeper insight into the plan of God” and to find out what contribution recent biological, psychological, and sociological discoveries could make to a solution of marital problems. Sexuality in marriage is intended for procreation, to be sure, but might there be other purposes for sexual intimacy in the ever evolving nature of a couple’s relationship? And from the position of sacramental theology, is not sexual joy a sacramental foretaste of the eternal joy of the heavenly kingdom?
It was clear in 1964 that Pope Paul saw a gathering storm ahead. He had already indicated that the final decision on the birth control question would come from him, and he withdrew the idea of a vote from the Council agenda. The Curial floor managers permitted only two days of discussion to the issue of marriage and family, but this did not stop the Council from producing a brilliantly worded formula in the final proof of schema 13, Gaudium et Spes regarding the ends or purposes of marriage: as procreative and unitive. This formula marked a sea change in future theological discussion, as until Vatican II the “procreative” aspect was seen as the prime purposes of marriage and, logically speaking, sex. My graduate professors used the GS formulation in my classroom and research work on the marital sacrament.
This late October debate of 1964 is as close as the Council would come to addressing the contraception question head on. In July 1968 Pope Paul issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae which reaffirmed the standing position against any form of artificial birth control. (Full text.) I had to smile as I noted how Wikipedia defended itself against bloggers that it had discussed the encyclical uncritically and without sufficient recognition of the opposition. In 1968 and beyond, there was plenty of opposition. Among the contentions was the feeling that the papal decision had not been undertaken in the spirit of collegiality just expressed in Vatican II and had not considered the will of the Council Fathers by limiting debate to two days. In the final analysis it would seem that Pope Paul rested his decision on the tradition of the Church and the school of moral thought which supported such an interpretation. An excellent source on the Church and the contraceptive question is John Noonan’s Contraception (1967, 1986 revised).
Over the past half century the contraception question has passed from a marital/moral issue to that of test case of orthodoxy, a factor which has made open theological writing and discussion rather difficult. The pontificate of John Paul II established obedience to Humanae Vitae as a bellwether of loyalty to all Church teaching, particularly among priests. Pope Francis to my knowledge has not addressed the question to date. Constant polling over the years indicates that about 75% of Catholic women practice artificial contraception in the United States and presumably elsewhere in the West. Where this leaves Humanae Vitae (and Gaudium et Spes, for that matter) is very hard to say. I just know that when I go to Mass tonight there will be a lot of two and three children families in line ahead of me for Holy Communion.
The Dangerous Misuses of ReligionRead Now
I was intending to continue our Saturday memories of Vatican II, but the tragic events in Paris are probably running dominating our attention today, in terms of the evil conspired, the sufferings endured, and the calamities anticipated. Watching the TV coverage early this morning I was reminded of one of history’s most famous (if unauthenticated) quotes, “Paris is worth a Mass,” attributed to King Henry IV of France, and the bloodshed that surrounded that supposed quote.
The setting of the quote is the second half of the sixteenth century, when Europe was ablaze in what were known as “religious wars” sprung from the Reformation. In France this warfare took the form of conflict between Roman Catholics and French Huguenots (Protestants of Calvinist persuasion.) In one of those politically motivated marriages so common at the time, the French King Henry II (Catholic) and his wife Catherine de’ Medici (Catholic) arranged for their somewhat unruly daughter Margaret of Valois (Catholic) to marry the heir to the throne of Navarre, Henry (Huguenot.) This marriage took place with great solemnity in 1572 in Notre Dame Cathedral, and a large number of Huguenot nobility attended the wedding.
What happened next, on St. Bartholomew’s feast day, August 24, 1572, has come down to us in history as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. It seems that the Catholic crown opted to eliminate several Huguenot leaders by assassination, but in the process unleased a violent outburst of Catholic rage, primarily against Huguenots but also against a deteriorating economic environment. While historians disagree on the exact nature of the event, it does appear that the heavily-Catholic population of Paris was outraged at the marriage rite which, incidentally, did not have the blessings of Rome given the variant Catholic-Huguenot faiths of the two parties.
The massacre itself was of extreme scale. I checked multiple sources for the numbers of those killed. The event in the city of Paris is believed to have killed about 2000 over several days. Unfortunately the mania spread like a wave throughout France. The sources estimates range between another 2000 and 100,000 fatalities. The latter number may seem high, but historians do note that residents of the city of Arles refused to drink from the Rhone River for three months because of corpses floating downstream from the city of Lyons. Perhaps even more regrettably, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was a prelude to another quarter century of more organized warfare between Catholic and Huguenot forces.
The man who finally brought a measure of peace to this religious turmoil was ironically the man whose wedding probably occasioned the massacre, Henry of Navarre, who again by the curious politics of blood and interests became King Henry IV of France. Henry was already having second thoughts about the political folly of war over religion. He remained married to Margaret, of course, but fidelity to the bed was not his strong suite. (He was known as “The Gay Old Spark.”) He grew particularly close to a mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées, who urged him to become a Catholic because she could not stand to see him despised by his Catholic subjects. It is in this context that Henry is supposed to have made his quote that “Paris is worth a Mass.” If Sunday attendance at Mass would strengthen his standing, he would do it. He returned to the faith of his Baptism. In 1598 he issued the Edict of Nantes which essentially established freedom of conscience throughout the realm and protected the rights of Huguenots. Again, in one of history’s ironies, Henry IV was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic.
I received a letter the other day from an old college buddy who asked, a bit tongue in cheek, whether the “Man from Nazareth” and his little band intended the expansion of his message into the Catholic monolith with all its barnacles of sin and imperfection, or how we as descendants of Jesus can be obtuse to such things as homophobia. (We don’t beat around the bush much in our conversations.) I replied that the Church has been poorly helped by its pride and artificial certitudes where none exist. Yesterday reminded me that religions of all kinds can be misused by their culture, for reasons of power, fear, economics, or in some cases group pathology.
I do not believe for a minute that the extremists of ISIS are motivated by anything resembling holy religion, though they claim a motive of “purifying the West.” The religious veneer is useful in recruiting and building esprit de Coeur, and Islam theology’s concept of the caliphate (religion and civil life as one weave) can, unfortunately, be understood to mix societal disenchantment with pseudo-religious fervor. We know that recruiting of terrorists targets the fringes, the friendless teenager looking for a family/community and a north star. Masters of terror target their prospective in some of the same ways as pedophiles do. They are no more religious than a bad priest grooming his next victims.
But ISIS is the latest of a long history of individuals and groups who have played religious creeds like a fiddle for other agendas, almost always their needs fulfillment—whether that be escape from fear to megalomania. It is hard to imagine that King Henry IV’s conversion to Catholicism resulted from a reading of The Imitation of Christ unless his mistress Gabrielle read it to him at bedtime. His conversion was a calculated strategy in the direction of national unity; the fact that life did get better for the French during his reign does not mask the cynicism of the act.
When we are seeing on TV today is pathology run wild, headed by an ideology that is absent both religious wisdom and any tendency toward honest introspection. While the options for dealing with armed sociopaths are extremely limited, the option of protecting our own religious traditions from gravely sinful abuse by humility, good works, honesty and penance are always at our finger tips. Last night was a bad night for Paris. But so was August 24, 1572.
I belong to a small faith-sharing group established by my parish. It is one of a number of such groups in my parish, and we meet monthly in each other’s homes. We use an outline of sorts invented and passed down by my parish for some years now, and to tell the truth, it is a perfectly dreadful tool. The best description I can give of the resource material is that of a collection of hashtags from the 1970’s; wrapping your mind around them is like collecting fog. Fortunately the group members are good, witty, wise and enthused, and when we loosen our chains from our paper baggage, some very good things happen.
Our baggage last night was “Evangelization,” a much used word with as many meanings. I suspect that most Catholics who think about the term understand it in the generic sense of invitation to the Body of Christ. My group seemed to grasp both the simplicity of the term—drawing all to a greater knowledge of the love of Christ—and the maddening complexity of it. Our group leader (we take turns) did an excellent job of summarizing the hopes and fears of evangelization, and she included a 9-minute video from Bishop Robert Baron (I will try to unearth it on YouTube) who stated that the joy of faith precedes the ethics of faith.
The open discussion covered much ground, but the main issue seemed to be precisely how, concretely, one evangelizes. There was universal agreement that preparation must precede praxis—and my parish is quite good about providing learning opportunities. The most pressing questions seemed to be these: (1) what does evangelization mean in the concrete; (2) how do the laity and the priests meld together in the project, and (3) what if one cannot engage in a parish ministry if prohibited by time and circumstances, such as parenting a special needs child or children, serving as a police or fire officer with high demands and erratic work times, etc.
This turned the discussion to ministry, and how the laity are supposed to be engaged in it. At this juncture I recommended that we drop the term ministry and go to the more theologically appropriate identity for all of us: Baptism, which with Confirmation and Eucharist, confers upon us a new identity in Christ. St. Paul describes Baptism as the death of the old man and the birth of the new. Baptism creates the ultimate “Catholic” identity for everything we do, in our families, marriages, professions, outreach, etc. The Catechism of the Church discusses the lifestyle of the baptized in considerable length and specificity.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that today’s scheduled Vatican II flashback would be the schema on “The Apostolate of the Laity,” the 1960’s language for the work of the baptized Catholic in the world. I read Rynne’s description of the debate, and in at least two cases bishops on the floor asked the very same questions my group had raised. This Council debate was not marked by the acrimony of most of the others, in part because there was already a long history of Catholic Action by laity under the direction of the Church hierarchy. In some countries, lay Catholic Action rallied against the evils of the state; Adolf Hitler himself attempted to purge Catholic Action in 1934. In some countries, notably in Europe, Catholic Action merged into Christian Democrats and entered civil politics against fascism and Communism. Catholic Action was considered an arm or working mechanism of episcopal authority.
The Council fathers, to their credit, sought to return to a theological declaration of the nature of the laity. Canon Law in 1964 was not particularly helpful, defining a layman as one “who is not a cleric.” Bishop Laszlo of Austria brought laughter when he quoted from an old theological dictionary his search for the term layman: “see Clergy.” Humor aside, Rynne declares that Vatican II was the first meeting to ever address the corporate nature of the laity, which numerically included well over 99% of the Church’s membership. Catholic Action had been seen as a working arm of the hierarchy, its identity being pragmatic more than metaphysical.
A number of bishops complained that the proposed document was too “clerical,” an adjective which was gathering momentum in this era as a term for excessive emphasis on the priest at the expense of the laity as a whole. (Pope Francis has spoken of the ills of clericalism in our own day.) But the theological experts in particular urged their sponsors to look positively to the tradition of the Scriptures and the early Church on the identity of all those baptized into the body of Christ. Holy Orders was not the flagship sacrament; Baptism [with Confirmation and First Eucharist] established the basic Christian identity of all. This is clear from the writings of St. Paul through the Acts of the Apostles. When the adult Augustine was baptized by the bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose, in 387, Augustine understood he was embracing a new identity and meaning to his life above all other considerations, to the degree that he dismissed his mistress of many years, the mother of his out-of-wedlock son.
While the theology of Baptism addressed the basic identity of the Catholic layperson in the world, a long debate ensued on the unresolved matter of the Catholic Action groups. Rynne observed wryly that no English speaking country embraced the Catholic Action concept, including the United States, on the grounds that it smacked of too much compulsory organization. In other nations bishops argued that Catholic Action should remain the sole organization assisting the bishops in Church work. The ideas of multiple church action societies (roughly one equivalent of ministries) or even independent lay movements and action groups created anxieties among some.
What also troubled many bishops was the absence of laity in the composition of the “Apostolate of the Laity” first draft, again a similar criticism of the 2015 Synod on the Family which did not involve families in its formal discussions. The document, given the many concerns of the bishops, was returned for a rewriting, a clear sign that there would be a fourth session of the Council in 1965. The final document of the Laity, promulgated in 1965, is actually an excellent instruction. I have a link to the document in its entirety here, for those who are interested. The authors could not speak with the concreteness we might have desired, given the newness of the subject in 1965, but the fact that there is still confusion about “ministry” and lay identity in our contemporary Church is an indication that more research, creativity and writing on the life of the laity—in very large part originating with the laity—is still a major assignment ahead of us.